If you have kids who are selective eaters there's a good chance you know the location of every McDonalds within a twenty mile radius of your house.
Maybe you’re an expert at making a meal out of only white foods or your pantry is stocked high with a particular type of cracker. You’re tired of throwing away uneaten meals, and if you see one more article about how many serves of vegetables your kids need in a day you’re going to scream.
Note that I didn’t say that these kids are picky, fussy or finicky. These words imply that eating this way is a choice, and lead to all kinds of dangerous and useless advice like ‘hungry children will never starve themselves’ and ‘if you give kids a new food seventeen times eventually they’ll try it’. No. Make no mistake about it, selective and restrictive eaters are not just being fussy.
They are trying to survive.
Imagine that you’re lost in the Amazon jungle and stumble across a village. You’re hungry - no, more than that - you’re starving, your stomach hurts and all you can think about is food. Just when you think you’re going to go mad with hunger, the villagers hand you a bowl of white goo. You tentatively take a sniff. Hmm, seems okay. You taste a little - it’s warm and sweet. In fact, it’s delicious! You gulp it down and happily the gnawing in your belly finally goes away. Every day the villagers come to you with a bowl of white goo and you feel happy. Yay! The yummy okay stuff that makes me feel good! Everything is going to be okay.
Then one day they hand you the bowl and inside is a spiky black sea urchin. What the? Give me my white goo, stupid villagers! You push it away but they push it back. Eat! They look kind of angry. One of them has a spear. Desperate for them not to yell, you bite into the hard black shell and a spike scrapes the roof of your mouth - ouch! And what the hell is that horrible smell? Your tummy growls. White goo! Please, just give me my white gooooo!
Hunger is such a fundamental urge, one that we’d do almost anything to satisfy. That’s all these kids are doing when they insist on eating a particular food or freak out when they don’t get it - trying to satisfy that urge in the safest (or only) way they know how. They’re trying to avoid the spiky black sea urchins.
So instead of wondering why these kids can be so fussy, the question should be why are so many foods uncomfortable for them?
Sensory processing disorders
Eating can be one of life’s great pleasures. All those delicious sensations - the sweet taste of an apple, the smell of onions frying, the smooth silkiness of custard on your tongue or the satisfying crunch of fresh celery. Your senses are on fire every time you eat.
But what if it hurts when your senses are on fire? What if every taste, smell, sound or texture was amplified? Well then I’m guessing that you’d do anything you had to do to get white goo instead of spiky black sea urchins. You’d want the foods that were bland, didn’t smell and were soft to avoid all that loud crunching and rough scraping of your mouth. You’d want foods that weren’t cold or hot. You might not like it when other people cooked or ate loud, crunchy, smelly foods either.
Conversely, what if none of your senses were on fire when you ate? What if your reduced sensitivity to taste and smell made food boring and unpalatable? What if soft foods didn’t provide any pleasant sensations, in fact they made you gag? Your white goo would look a bit different - crunchy, hot, cold, spicy, intense flavours.
A lot of autistic kids have exactly these kinds of sensory disruptions, so it’s no wonder that they can have strong preferences when it comes to the texture, flavour and temperature of their food.
Need for routine
To a selective eater, the McNuggets or bread or chocolate milk are safe, known foods that are always the same and never hurts them. Everything else is a spiky black sea urchin. The foods that these kids will eat are often the ones that are the same every time they eat them. And I’m not talking ordering-spaghetti-at-different restaurants kind of same, I mean exactly the same - identical shape, colour or size.
A large part of the reason they want nuggets is that they’re exactly the same no matter which McDonalds you get them from. Tell a kid he’s getting nuggets and he knows exactly what they will look, taste and feel like. He knows that he likes them and they will make him feel good. Zero surprises. Chicken strips on the other hand? They don’t always look the same. They might be a different size, number, taste... for some kids that’s just too much risk.
Focus on details
Kids who are great at noticing details see that tiny brown spot where the meat has been overcooked or the tiny corner of the cheese that’s missing. They notice the shapes and colours of food, and these distinctive features make each into a completely different food for them.
Rigid and literal thinking
Autistic kids can have trouble distinguishing between the essential and non-essential components of the food experience - the last time they ate that really yummy cereal, it was in the red bowl. They also find it tough to generalize from one food experience to another, so when you say ‘pasta’ they picture that one specific type of pasta you gave them the last time you said that word. Giving them a different shape of pasta isn’t ‘pasta’, it’s a completely different food.
Resistance to change
It’s understandable that someone who finds new things scary would try to keep everything the same, especially food since it’s one of our most fundamental comforts.
Cause and effect confusion
A large part of our food preferences comes from the emotional memory of having eaten a food before. We get excited when we see a big plate of crunchy bacon because we remember how nice it felt to eat and how good it makes us feel to taste it. But if your body isn’t great at telling you how it feels, or you have trouble connecting that response to the thing that triggered it, the emotional memories will be less strong. This can make it harder for you to remember which foods you like.
Ever tried ordering food in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language? You know what you want to eat but don’t know how to ask for it, so you try the best you can and they bring you something completely different. It might taste great, but you’re too scared to try because it looks unfamiliar and you’re not sure whether you’ll like it. You’re hungry and desperate, so you end up ordering the one thing that you do know the word for just to be sure that you’ll get something you can eat.
How you can help
Rule out medical causes
Forget what you know about food
Keep a food diary
Take small steps towards new foods
Aim for variety not quantity
Time it right
Don’t offer only new foods
Experience food outside of meal times
Make meal times comfortable
The bottom line
Life with a restrictive eater can be really, really frustrating. But as long as they're eating something, does it really need to be at the top of your list of things to tackle?
I know that when I let go of my own anxieties about what Max was eating, it freed up a lot of energy for me to cope with other stuff. Deciding that we had bigger fish(sticks) to fry was very liberating for all of us... and with the reduced tension Max made some huge leaps forward, including trying new foods.
Life's weird like that.
Completely awesome scared sandwich pic from Flickr user Sakurako Kitsa